Print Version    Email to Friend
Keeping the oceans full of life


Extinction of species is currently taking place across the globe and conservationists are making a tremendous effort to bring them back from the brink.

Each year it is estimated that 100,000 species become extinct, which is 1,000 more than before humans began to have an impact the planet in a destructive way with the rise the industrial era.

It is also unfortunately true that we are damaging our oceans at an extraordinary rate as well.

Early in 2015, a team of scientists examined data from hundreds of sources and concluded that humans are on the verge of causing unprecedented damage to the oceans and all the life they contain.

Douglas J. McCauley, an ecologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is one of the authors of the report which was published in the magazine, Science. The data he has studied makes it clear that “we may be sitting on a precipice of major extinction event.”

The report claims that humans are harming the oceans to a remarkable degree. Some ocean species are overharvested. But large-scale habitat loss is also occurring, which is extremely serious.

Coral reefs, for example, have declined by 40 per cent worldwide. This has been caused by climate-change warming of the oceans and deforestation in the tropics.

Even though they constitute only one per cent of the ocean seabed, coral reefs are home to 25 per cent of the species of the ocean. In Praise Be: On care for our common home (Laudato Si’), Pope Francis also laments the destruction of coral reefs.

He points out, “Many of the world’s coral reefs are already barren or in a state of constant decline.” 

He goes on to quote from a pastoral letter of the bishops of The Philippines, published in 1998, entitled, What is Happening to Our Beautiful Land? which asks, “Who turned the wonder world of the seas into cemeteries bereft of colour and life?” (No.41).

Fragile ecosystems, like mangroves, are being replaced by fish farms and hotels. Huge trawlers drag enormous nets across the bottom of the oceans turning the continental shelf into rubble.

Already 20 million square miles of the sea floor have been destroyed. On care for our common home bemoans the destruction of mangroves (No 39).

Mining has the potential to do enormous damage to the oceans. In the year 2000, there were no contracts for mining in the oceans. Today, contracts for seabed mining cover 460,000 square miles of ocean.

Seabed mining has the potential to tear up unique ecosystems and introduce pollution into the deep sea.

Another impact from increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the altering chemistry of seawater, making it more acidic. Malin Pinskey, a marine biologist at Rutgers University, compares what is happening to the oceans to someone turning up the heat in their aquarium and throwing in some acid as well.

She is clear that the fish would not like it. “In effect, that’s what we’re doing to the oceans,” she says.

She is well aware, “The impacts are accelerating, but they’re not so bad we can’t reverse them.” The oceans are still mostly intact and they are wild enough to bounce back to health if they are given a chance.

McCauley insists that there is time for humans to halt the damage with effective programmes limiting the exploitation of the oceans. “The tiger may not be salvageable in the wild—but the tiger shark may well be,” he said.

One important tool is to limit the industrialisation of the oceans to some regions, which would allow threatened species to move there and build up their population. In recent weeks, Britain has increased the number of conservation zones to 50.

Critics point out that this is far below the 127 sites which were recommended in a government consultation. Callum Roberts, of the University of York, a leading marine conservation expert, said, “We need more, because the network we have is far from complete.”

There is also a major concern over conservation zones being properly managed. Roberts points out that six years after the Marine Act and Coastal Access was passed, “They still have no management at all, so life within them remains unprotected.”

Most of all we need to wake up to the dangers facing the oceans before it is too late.


          • Father Sean McDonagh